Need a morale boost? Get out of your chair and take a short walk to lift your spirits.

Walking.

Our bodies were designed for near constant activity and yet, most of us today have trouble finding time in our day to exercise. This turn of events is really unfortunate, considering the fact that physical exercise has been shown time and time again to help alleviate depression — which a record number of people suffer from.

But you don’t need hours at the gym to get a boost to your mood, University of Connecticut researchers report. Simply getting out of the chair and taking a walk around can reduce depression and give you a general state of well-being, they report.

“We hope this research helps people realize the important public health message that simply going from doing no physical activity to performing some physical activity can improve their subjective well-being,” says Gregory Panza, a graduate student in UConn’s Department of Kinesiology and the study’s lead author.

“What is even more promising for the physically inactive person is that they do not need to exercise vigorously to see these improvements,” Panza continues. “Instead, our results indicate you will get the best ‘bang for your buck’ with light or moderate intensity physical activity.”

This is particularly encouraging news as ‘light physical activity’ is basically walking. Simple, standard, vanilla walking, the kind where you don’t break a sweat or notice an increase in breathing or heart rate. The benchmark ‘moderate physical activity’ is walking a 15-20 minute mile with a slight increase in breathing and heart rate — while still be able to hold a conversation– as well as mild sweating. ‘Vigorous’ exercise is equivalent to jogging a 13-minute mile with heavy sweating and a significant increase in breathing and heart rate, up to the point where you’d be unable to maintain a conversation.

Do a little shake

The researchers gave 419 healthy middle-aged adults accelerometers to wear for four days so the team could record their physical activity. The participants also completed a series of questionnaires in which they described their daily exercise habits and reported on their levels of depression, pain intensity, the extent to which pain interfered with their daily activity, and psychological well-being.

The team found a powerful correlation between sedentary behavior and the lower levels of subjective well-being (positive and negative evaluations the participants made about their lives). Those who reported sitting around for most of the day reported lower levels of happiness, and those who did even limited physical exercise had a positive boost to their mood.

For example, those who participated in light-intensity physical activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of depression. People who participated in moderate-intensity activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of pain severity.

Two surprising finds were, first, that the greatest improvement in well-being was reported by those who lead typically-sedentary lives and engaged in light or moderate activity, and secondly, that vigorous exercise didn’t seem to cause any positive or negative shift in subjective well-being.

“The ‘more is better’ mindset may not be true when it comes to physical activity intensity and subjective well-being,” Gregory Panza, a graduate student in UConn’s Department of Kinesiology and the study’s lead author. “In fact, an ‘anything is better’ attitude may be more appropriate if your goal is a higher level of subjective well-being.”

Overall, very encouraging findings — if you’re trying to mood up through exercise, anything will help; and at the same time, you can’t be worse off no matter how hard you work out. That last point, in particular, should come as great news for those who enjoy hard, calorie-burning workouts, as it doesn’t support a widely reported recent study that found high-intensity workouts significantly lowered some people’s sense of well-being.

Still, the authors note that all participants of the study had a generally positive sense of well-being and were generally physically active going into the project, so their answers should be interpreted with that in mind. Another limitation is that the study only analyzed one point in time. A longitudinal study (which tracks people over time) would offer a better glimpse into the relationship between exercise and mood,

The full paper “Physical activity intensity and subjective well-being in healthy adults” has been published in the Journal of Health Psychology.

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